Background Roots


Note from the Editor: The Blue Paper is honored to share with you the first in a series of  excerpts from the autobiographical works of Key West’s first Poet Laureate, Kirby Congdon…


Background Roots

by Kirby Congdon…….

After my family had lost their house, business and employment in West Chester, Pennsylvania, we settled into Great Uncle Jim’s one-horse farm house on nine acres in Old Mystic, Connecticut. Uncle Jim’s own father had built it himself, being a carpenter, about 1856 with gold-rush income as a carpenter in California.. My older brother, Charles who had been sent to college by Grandfather Congdon, a doctor in Mystic, CT, and my own father, spent a summer to get running water and electricity going. The drinking water, from a very deep well, was fresh and tasty, as was a natural spring further down the road, both of them having been fed with an extensive aquifer that had the rural woods of Connecticut and its glacial subsoil acting as sieves. My new environment let me feel I had a place in it. Even later through my college years in New York City I had a reference point on a human scale. The century-old farms in the neighborhood were disappearing as the automobile widened one’s contacts. But I never had more than the use of a bicycle. At home or school, the reference to the world itself was rare. It was foreign or uninterestingly deviant. The only public news was from the New London Day, which cost three cents. A telephone was pretty much of an extravagance. In New England, too much individuality was classified as “odd” and one let it go at that. Sexual attachments between the same sex were beyond comprehension and so were hardly a matter for discussion.

A cousin who lived in the Norwegian section of Brooklyn had the impressive job of being a cashier for Longchamps Restaurant in mid-town Manhattan. He even saw hundred-dollar bills now and then. He knew me in my early teens and was in his early twenties himself. For me, he was sophistication itself. I was sitting on his lap one evening soaking up his debonair style as we made talk. My mother came in and turning the light on said, “Oh, it’s you two.” She was surprised but not flustered. Nor were we. Yet we were not two guys talking baseball. I wondered more than once what insight my mother may have had about male relationships.

This same cousin in later life bought a house by Red Brook over at Burnett’s Corner a half mile away. It had the ruins of a sawmill by a water fall which that cousin’s own family helped retrieve for habitation. After the war he took up with a young lad living nearby for companionship after his retirement as an Army Colonel. When his family realized that this young man was destined to be the heir to all the property it did not go down well. The world was being wrenched apart by both free will and affection. Previously it had been easier to let things stay as they are until something like the Stonewall riots brought situations to a head.

When we had first arrived in Connecticut I had still needed the crib I had had for seven or eight years. A new bed would have been an extravagance in the Depression years. I still had my teddy bear and Yuleman as my confidants. A girl from the neighborhood looked at them and advised me, “You can’t sleep with a teddy bear any more!” I took her advice. My parents found another bed for me and I took my two confidants up to the attic where I reluctantly installed them carefully in a huge packing box that held linens and extra pillows. “I will come back for you,” I promised. I did come back but the packing box was gone. But I had learned not to force people to conform. A few years later this same neighbor girl persuaded me to take her to her high-school prom. I had never been to such an event. It was elaborate and my girl friend went to great trouble to dress up. She was to pick me up at my house. That evening I came down with a fever and could not get out of bed. No one could conclude what went wrong then. But I do now. While Sigmund Freud was much discussed when I started college, Karen Horney’s later study on psychosomatic inhibitions was also an eye opener.

How this connects with my own mother I’m not sure. I do know that my father always annoyed her and that she herself had extreme reservations about ever even touching any of her own three children at any age. One day my mother was driving up the steep road on Quakataugh Hill when the brakes failed on the car and it rolled backward into a ditch. Back home she was looking distractedly out the kitchen window and rhetorically asked out loud how could my father, an experienced auto mechanic, let the brakes fail while she was driving. I replied, “Perhaps he wanted to kill you.” Mother turned away from the window to look at me. Her eyes filled up with tears. Neither of us said anything.

Not having any sophisticated education, she managed her life quite well. But there was a trail of damages. My sister said more than once that she only wanted to be loved. She had met a professional artist who suggested that she should do everything so he could work creatively without interruption. I could understand his stance but that was not an invitation that was all that appealing. She did settle for a young bank teller who had been brought up three miles down the river in Mystic. Unfortunately she had no real love for him; she only needed him to get a child that would be her own family. As he realized he had been used, he, apparently, became alcoholic because of it. That ended that. She had the child. When she realized her offspring was not a literary person she told me she felt she had been personally insulted.

This made me think of my own life because I, ostensibly, had the whole of New York available to me. I compared that situation to the skinny opportunities that were proper and sedate enough for straight marriages which, so often, seemed to be disastrous.
My father had been sent for two years to a technological college but on his third year he discovered, after traveling there with a horse and buggy, that his tuition had not been paid. Grandfather Congdon had decided that my father was too flighty as an adolescent to deserve more education. One can imagine that being a doctor’s son may have made him feel too secure and that, as an adolescent, my father had taken his position in society too much for granted. But I knew him as very knowledgeable about electrical matters, carpentry, automobiles and mechanics. But he never got over the rejection that, in effect, destroyed him psychologically. In short, my adolescences was a course in the new views of the human experience that were just finding publication in academia.

Being aware of the physical background of land and local history as well as the personal conflicts in my family, even if I was too young to analyze them, helped me to mature, however inept I was socially and as a student in New York City.

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One thought on “Background Roots

  1. Mr. Congden, Gosh, how mundane my middle class Jewish upbringing seems compared to this. The “normalness” of it all almost seems horrifying. My mother, who turns 100 next June, still lives in that world. Somehow I escaped … as you seem to have done. Congratulations. One thing … I grew up in NY and can never remember a Norwegian neighborhood. I thought they all lived in Minnesota. Thanks for the article, ciao, Jerome

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